How to Learn More Accurately and Faster
“Learning” is for the mind what “eating” is for the body. Knowledge is truly the food of the spirit. There is exceptional food and not so wonderful food.
Remember when you wanted to build your diet and your body. If you know a dietitian, a nutritionist or a professional trainer, then you have probably admired the fact that they “know” everything that is important for food and how our body manages it!
They know what food our body needs. They know that our body handles every food. They know what happens when we eat each food and what happens when we combine them. They know what, when and how often we should eat. They know a variety of strategies for achieving different things.
If the nutritional sciences know these, is there anything in common between knowledge and learning?
The study of knowledge, of “how we learn”, the real “I know how I know”, is called “epistemology” and is a broader field of research which concerns scientists from the time of Socrates until today.
Important: In English there is a linguistic confusion because the term “epistemology” is used for two fields that are different from each other, while at the same time in Greek (which is my mother tongue) we have two different terms.
That is, in Greek we use the term “epistemology” (epistimologia) when we talk about the study of scientific thought, the scientific method and the scientific knowledge, while we use the term “gnosiology” (gnoseologia) when we study the phenomenon of learning, how the brain learns something, at what point learning “happens” and what characterizes it, what exactly does knowledge mean, etc.
Epistemology is more , as a study, while gnosiology is broader and embraces the whole theme of “knowledge”. For many, gnosiology is “the science of sciences.”
What Does “Learn” Mean?
Yet, what does — in simple words — “learning” mean?
From a technical point of view, “learning” means a logical correlation of known data. The data alone are useless, as they cannot be used until they are “correlated”, that is, combined with other data in ways that describe the structure and phenomena of reality.
The fact that “the coronavirus is a virus” does not tell anything by itself. It is transformed into “essential knowledge” though, when we know what viruses are in general, what they do to living organisms and specifically to humans, what the coronavirus family is, what symptoms it shows, and so on.
The logical correlation of known data that takes place — sometimes momentarily, sometimes gradually — is perceived by the individual as “knowledge”.
The datum becomes “knowledge” when we “learn” it, and we “learn” it when it “makes sense”. It makes sense something makes that (initially) “ties” with other known data, so it is combined in a logical and functional way with other already known data.
What we perceive as “knowledge” describes the form or function of reality.
Learning First Means “I Don’t Know”
In order to know something, it is necessary not to know it beforehand.
I cannot learn what I already know.
I cannot learn what I think I know.
These recognitions sound simple, but there are many cases where we have discovered that a person had difficulty in an area because deep down they believed that they “already know everything about it”. This example comes from real assumptions and real students.
Knowledge = Ability (and vice versa)
Ability comes from knowledge.
Latent knowledge or lack of knowledge leads to impotence.
The person who has never driven a car “does not know” how to drive. Therefore, such person is unable to drive a car. Even if they managed to turn on the engine, they would probably turn it off immediately or throw it at a wall. Poor driving is also an inability to drive, because obviously the person does not know what is necessary to drive properly.
In something so simple it is easy to discern and to admit that we “do not know” something. However, there are many other situations in our lives that make it difficult to admit that we “do not know”, which leads to an inability to learn anything substantive about the subject. One such issue is human relations, or managing a professional team or handling a relationship.
In such situations it is very difficult to distinguish which data are correct and which are not; which lead to real knowledge and pleasant legitimate results, and which lead to latent knowledge and poor as well as harmful results.
Let’s look at some more examples that show that a person cannot recognize that they “do not know” and continue to fail:
- We do not have as many friends as we would like but we think we know very well how to make friends… (later we decide that we never wanted many friends anyway!).
- We have been accountants for 25 years and no younger accountant can teach us something essential. After all, we have encountered every possible thing.
- I am a psychologist and I know how the human psyche works. Therefore, no one can teach me more than what I have already read in the books.
- I am a father and I have succeeded with nothing but scraps of bread and only the bare minimum to live and have built a house, got a job, etc. I know what the right way is for my child and no one else can have a word about it.
- I do gymnastics and I am concerned as an amateur with my nutrition. I have a very nice body so I know how to advise others safely on issues of nutrition and exercise… (sign of our times).
- I am a successful entrepreneur, so I think I know human nature and there is nothing important to know (remarkably strange correlation).
- I have read 25 books and many articles on a spiritual subject and therefore believe that I belong to the elite of spiritual understanding; there is nothing new I can learn, neither from another, nor from genuine observation.
I will not make the list too long, but I think I have conveyed a framework from which everyone can find examples of themselves.
We are all guilty of similar views, since we are all humans.
Stuck in Time
As we have been taught in the science of biology and the general theory of evolution, an organism survives to the extent that it either adapts to its environment or adapts its environment to it. For this to happen, the organism needs to learn, every day, every moment.
From an organic predisposition humans learn constantly, from the moment of conception in their mother’s womb. We learn every second, even in our sleep. However, the most important lessons, those that require us to use our full range of mental abilities, do not happen all the time, only in moments.
These “important lessons” are pieces of knowledge that stem from direct experience, perhaps in a very specific context, with a large and intense emotional investment and extensive attention or awareness. The more important this knowledge is, the greater the feeling of rejuvenation we feel.
They who do not “learn” such important lessons every now and then, feel as if they are not evolving. They feel swampy and stagnant. Stationary in time!
Instinctively they feel bad inside, mainly because learning and discovering new knowledge about the world made them more able to adapt to the environment (or to adapt the environment to their measures).
Why Do We Have Such Difficulty to Learn
We find it difficult to learn when we do not really intend to use this knowledge.
We find it difficult to learn when we think we already know what is important in this subject.
It is very difficult to know if we are doing it to satisfy someone else or to pass a test. You can pass the exam… you can satisfy someone else, nevertheless it is impossible to really learn the subject of the study… and it is impossible to finally acquire the skills that result from this knowledge.
We find it difficult to learn when we do not have access to the right data, either we know we do not have access to these, or even worse in case we believe that such data are correct when they are not.
We find it difficult to learn when we do not apply and practice this knowledge. If you want to learn something you learned in a seminar, then apply it immediately, if possible on the same day. In order to transform the “datum” into “knowledge” it is necessary to test it, to verify it and to gain comfort in its use.
Think that the real alchemy that the alchemists have been looking for in the past is the formula that turns every single datum into a piece of valuable knowledge…!
We find it difficult to learn when everything is easy. When things are easy, the subconscious does not participate in the process. Since it is the largest and most important part of the mind, its absence makes the process barren.
We learn best when there is a rich psycho-emotional involvement, especially if there is difficulty and struggle. It is legitimate to reach our limits.
We find it difficult to learn when we do not understand words or ideas on the subject and we move on.
We find it difficult to learn when we miss grades and we lack knowledge of basic materials.
We find it difficult to learn when there is no room for critical thinking, dialogue and contradiction.
We find it difficult to learn when we do not have a method of evaluating the “knowledge” we create.
We find it difficult to learn if we do not examine our failures and instead just feel bad.
We find it difficult to learn when we are only dealing with abstract concepts. We learn something best when we can relate it to emotions, senses, stories, images and examples.
Where and How We Learn
So far we know that we learn by correlating data. Data comes from life, that is, experience itself. There are two categories of experience, direct experience (my own experience) and indirect experience (the experience of others).
Note: Observing others (e.g. a group of researchers in an organized experiment) is an indirect experience.
To this category belongs the knowledge we draw from other people, through the study of books they have written, history books, documentaries or other types of videos, lessons and finally from discussion and exchange of views with them.
When we extract data from indirect knowledge, it is important for that we are especially careful. Because we cannot check whether a datum is accurate and in accordance with reality, we can easily assume it to be true, while it is likely to be untrue.
Especially when we hear “words”, that is, when someone says something that we can not verify immediately, it is safe to “place” this data in a mental box labeled “they said it, I do not know if these are valid, examination and comparison with other data is expected”. Words do not always correspond to facts, there is error, there is imagination, there is also lie…
In addition, we should consider the position, the interest and if possible the purpose of the person who records or says the data. Example: the winner of a war records in the historical records that the enemy said or did such a thing. It would be right to see what the other side said and if possible other independent parties, checking for each of them the motives, the interest, etc.
There are many levels of indirect experience, some safer than others. For example, watching a documentary that shows us how a penguin walks is a relatively safe source if we want to know how a penguin walks. What we saw has a good chance of being true. But what the narrator of the documentary will say is less likely to be true.
It is often a mistake to equate what you see with what you hear, especially if it comes from the same person.
Someone is doing something interesting. At the same time they say they do it, why they do it, what exists and allows them to do what they do… there is a high probability that they are wrong. There is a good chance that they interpret the data in a logical way, even possessing a certain skill without knowing what they are saying at all!
For example, dozens of successful professionals believe that they know why they have succeeded, but the truth is not so romantic. Most do not really know.
You see, contrary to what we think, most of our choices are made deep in our subconscious. The explanations we give later are seldom correct, though very often they are “plausible”!
What we are discussing now does not contradict what we said above about “knowledge = ability”. A great amount of knowledge is beyond the bounds of our consciousness. We “comprehend” many things but not in the way we necessarily reckon.
If we want to gain an indirect experience, for example something we learn in a lesson we are studying, then the best way is to practice, right?
The theory of how we solve an equation is an indirect experience. When we go and solve some equations on our own we gain direct experience. The “learning” that results from direct experience is infinitely more powerful compared to the “learning” from contact with some indirect experience.
On a personal level, it is safe (and more honest) to say that we know nothing if we have not repeatedly verified it ourselves, through testing, effort and experimentation. The obstacle we face in direct experience is what we call mental errors or cognitive biases. In short, these are errors in logical thinking, which usually come from our distant evolutionary past and appear as instincts and emotions.
Two tools are very important when we want to gain direct experience (usually by converting a previous indirect experience into a direct experience).
First of all the ACTION. Action is the highest form of immediate experience. There is nothing more powerful than what we do, we see that we do it and we experience it from end to end.
The second is the RIGHT QUESTION. We create a “unit of knowledge” and test it with action, to gain a deeper understanding. Then we are called to think and answer these correct questions.
But what is a “right question”?
These are the questions we ask in an attempt to prove that this unit of knowledge is wrong, that it does not work as we believe, and that it is not what it seems.
These are… the difficult questions.
Difficult is a question that challenges what the knowledge unit says. We try to prove to ourselves that it does not apply, using appropriate questions.
Such thing is not “negativity”, but the safest way to avoid the errors of thought and to come as close as possible to the really important data.
Important note: The above do not mean that we should deny a priori (which applies by default and is not disputed) the knowledge of others and rely only on our own. Such a thing is practically impossible and wrong!
For example, when we start on a new position, we rely on what we know about this job. We also listen to the person who had the position before or anyone who knows about it.
When looking for a doctor we usually hear the opinion and experience of those we trust, as it is very difficult to judge the ability of a doctor without having tested all the candidates or without being doctors ourselves.
Humanity is strong because everyone knows a lot about different issues and all together contribute to the whole. Direct and indirect knowledge are equally important to our well-being.
As I see it, it is always our duty to evaluate it strictly and to constantly separate truth from all the confusion.
There are some techniques you can use to significantly improve your ability to learn anything faster and more accurately. Let’s look at three of them that I have used in coaching cases with professionals and children:
The Feynman Technique
Richard Feynman was a leading theoretical physicist. He studied quantum mechanics and won the Nobel Prize in Physics. As a student he developed a technique that helped him significantly to learn faster and in depth what he was studying.
The technique spread and soon enough it took his name. In summary they are:
- Pretend you are teaching the subject you want to understand to young students (e.g. elementary school students). Use very simple terms.
- Every time you notice that you find it difficult to make the subject “simple” or to say it in your own words, there is something you do not know. Turn to the material and study it carefully. Try to “teach” it again to find out if you really know it now. You have to feel it is very easy to teach it in order to know that you comprehend it very well!
- Repeat the process in circles. Now add examples of your own invention. If you can not create realistic examples, then go back, study the material again, and try again.
When you can explain to young students what you study effortlessly, in simple words and with your own examples, then you “really know” the subject!
Memory is a key factor in knowing. I know, means that I have made the right logical data connection and that I can recall them from my mind to the conscious when I need them.
The parrot is the bad side of “I remember”. The good side of “remembering” is that I know something so well that I can recall it in my mind or apply it instantly and almost instinctively.
We have all heard that repetition is one of the best ways to learn something. Right… but!
Modern studies have shown that 100 repetitions (mnemonic or oral) in a row are much less effective than 100 repetitions in tens, spread over two days. In fact, it is even better if we do such a program:
- After the initial study, 10 repetitions immediately (total 10)
- After 20 minutes another 10 repetitions (total 20)
- After 40 minutes another 10 repetitions (total 30)
- After 1 hour another 10 repetitions (total 40)
- After 3 hours another 10 repetitions (total 50)
- After 8 hours another 10 repetitions (total 60)
- After 15 hours…
- After 20+ hours…
The idea is more repetitions at shorter intervals at first and then more and more sparsely.
The Plasticine Technique
This technique is unusual, yet extremely effective. It is ideal for children, because plasticine is something that you can easily find in schools, however, knowing the amazing results it has in adults, I believe that it should be found in every company and educational institute.
The technique is as follows:
- Pick a topic you are studying and choose a datum or a set of data that you want to learn well.
- Make little people (or whatever else is needed) with plasticine. Place darts (with plasticine) to show direction, small clouds to show speech. Place labels with names (though do not write explanations). The plasticine must show what you want to show.
- Someone else is looking at what you made and if they see what you were thinking then you seem to know the subject.
The technique is based on the principle that if you can demonstrate with clarity in your own example or with your own way what you are studying, this means that you have really made the topic of study your own.
Epilogue and Study Suggestions
Instead of a traditional closing I will note some book titles which I suggest to better comprehend the phenomenon of “learning” and the field of “epistemology”.
• The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance, Joshua Waitzkin
• Mastery, Robert Greene
• The Laws of Simplicity, John Maeda
• Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel
• Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential, Barbara Oakley
• Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career, Scott H. Young
• Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol S. Dweck
• Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, John Medina
• Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport
• The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle
Although there is a lot of interesting research on “learning”, the path to this information being widely applied in schools and educational institutions is still a long way to get there.
Gradually, changes are made, elements are adopted and new approaches are tested. May our children and our children’s children have access to superior quality learning methods and know-how.
Credits to Andreas Katsimidis, Nikos Ks. and Giannis Theodosopoulos for their help in language and editing.